Suddenly, everything went blue

Bomb survivor wants to deploy victims for counter-terrorism

National University Hospital, Singapore

By Frank Provoost

Three years ago, Leiden alumnus Max Boon (36) survived the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, but lost both his legs. He has now returned to Indonesia after rehabilitation, where he wants to get victims involved in counter-terrorism.

"I remember that I was about to say something. I was sitting with my back to the door and I didn't see the bloke with the bomb arrive. Suddenly, everything went blue. I couldn't breathe and I could see myself falling into an empty space. It felt as if lasted about ninety seconds. It was terribly scary.
"The hotel sprinklers brought me round and I could see the chaos all around me. I knew immediately what had happened. I tried to stand up, but couldn't because my left leg was almost completely severed and so was my right arm - at least, that's what it felt like. I started shouting for help. When a guard found me and picked me up, I grabbed my arm and told him not to forget my leg.
"I was carried outside and set down on the tarmac next to a mate of mine. 'Max', he said almost euphorically, 'We survived a bombing!' 'But look at me: I've lost an arm and a leg!' I replied. Then I called out two things: 'Kenapa?' which means 'why'? And: 'Saya masih cinta Indonesia' or: 'I still love Indonesia'.
"I read Indonesian in Leiden and then worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a year. In 2004, I ended up in Indonesia, where I worked on the reconstruction of Aceh after the tsunami. Then I joined a consultancy firm in Jakarta, Castle Asia, as a business development director. That Friday, on the 17th July 2009, we were holding a breakfast for about twenty CEOs in the Marriott Hotel, like we did every week, to keep them up abreast of economic and political affairs.
"Yes, I think it's strange that I professed my love for that country as I was lying there on the tarmac. I think it was the frustration talking, after five years' experience of living there: Indonesia was only ever on CNN if there was a bomb attack. 250 million people live there, the majority of whom are tolerant, flexible and unprejudiced. I just wanted to make that clear at the time. It had to be said.
"I could hear ambulances in the distance, but they didn't arrive. Traffic in Jakarta is hellish, everything was at a standstill. In the end, I was put on the back of an open pick-up truck and taken to hospital like that. I can remember the whole journey. We got stuck in traffic too. When the truck braked without warning, I slipped off the bench and banged my head, which caused some severe complications later on.
"At the hospital, everything was in confusion. There were wounded people everywhere; they put me down on the lawn. I had lost my telephone and my wallet which had my insurance papers in it and which said I had to be evacuated to Singapore in the event of an emergency. I was worried that nobody would realise that, so I started shouting: 'International SOS!' It was only after that someone came over and said 'It's okay' that I passed out. Evidently I was reassured and my survival instinct allowed it to happen.
"I woke again nearly three weeks later. They had kept me in an artificial coma, and I was still in danger. It turned out that I had been transferred to Singapore after two days where I had undergone surgery almost daily. Both my legs had been amputated. I was covered in burns and the bang on the head has left me deaf in one ear.
"The bombers had taken bolts from a television set and put them in the bomb to cause as much damage as possible. One of the bolts had entered my heart. It's still there - the doctors thought it too risky to remove it. When I give a talk, like I did recently at the UN in New York, I always say I'm thankful it was a Philips television and I'm still a hundred percent Dutch, to lighten the mood of this awful story.
"I couldn't talk when I came out of the coma. My lungs were badly damaged and there were tubes down my throat. I communicated using sign language and by pointing to letters. When my boss came to see me, I made it clear to him that he was to write a letter to the president on my behalf, to congratulate him with the 17th of August, Independence Day. Why? It's that same emotion that emerged from that basic instinct. It still surprises me too. The president was touched, and wrote back immediately.
"Once I had recovered enough, I flew to the Netherlands. I worked on my recovery for over two years. But I missed an intellectual challenge while I was recovering. I wondered how I could put my unique experienceto good use so through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I got in touch with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), a partnership formed by the Asser Institute, Clingendael and Leiden University's Campus The Hague. As it was, there were hardly any global projects structurally deploying victims for counter-terrorism. I believe that it can work, particularly the preventative side, to prevent political radicalisation. That's why we've set up a project which is now funded by a number of government authorities and a private foundation. To start with, we're concentrating on Indonesia, but we hope that we can inspire other countries in the region.
"By getting victims to help, you can confront potential terrorists and their immediate circles with the human suffering caused by attacks. Dani Dwi Permana, the bloke who walked in and blew himself up, was not angry with Max Boon. He didn't want to hurt me personally. My pain and suffering was purely an abstract concept. His only goal was to generate hate and fear. Terrorists always claim that they are fighting America and the West, but these bombings kill or injure very many Indonesians. We have to show these terrorists that the victims are more like themselves that they realise.
"I'm not naive; I'm not deluding myself that we can stop the people who do the brain-washing. But I hope that we can change the minds of a number of the youths who are susceptible to brain-washing. Mind you: the project is not meant to make people less politically radical. As far as I'm concerned, people have the right to be radical. But violence is not a right, and especially not against innocent people who do not want to be involved in any war whatsoever.
"The project kicked off officially this summer. I'm heading a team on Jakarta and together we'll be working on the rest of the project. We need a good database and a suitable protocol. What criteria should we use? When I woke up in Singapore, I was glad no one asked me to talk to potential terrorists. There again, three years is too long but if the victim says 'not now', when should you try again? There will be plenty of people who can't or won't help, and if they say 'never', you have to make sure that they are never asked again. That means the incident was too traumatic.
"We're starting a pilot at the end of this project year: we're going to take the first victims into the field, to the regions with an increased risk of political radicalisation. Perhaps a former terrorist will come with us, or some relatives. After all, they are victims too, in a sense. Dani Dwi Permana's parents lost their son; they have always renounced violence. And I can imagine that we arrive at schools where the pupils know more about the Quran than our victims, so it's a good idea to take a mullah to answer any religious questions. Moreover, the participants have to know how to communicate adequately. You can't arrive in an emotional state and say: 'You're all potential terrorists and that's wrong.' That would get their backs up.
"I don't know yet whether I will tell them my story. Actually, I think Indonesians should do it, but on the other hand, there is a biased view of Westerners. Many of the boys and girls in the high-risk regions have never spoken to a white person. I can speak the language and, accordingly, I could make a good impression. I recently spoke to a class of madrasah teachers and I noticed that it had a positive effect.
"It still upsets me to talk about the attack, but it's important to tell this story because it's not getting enough attention. If a bomb goes off somewhere, that place becomes the centre of attention for a very short while. But the court cases are always about the perpetrators; too little focus is put on the pain and the distress of the victims, although that is the one thing that might force people to realise they shouldn't use extremist violence.
"I haven't touched my wheelchair since the 8th of April. I have learnt to walk without crutches; I walk with microprocessor-controlled knees. It's hard work, every single day, especially here in the tropics, but it's a huge improvement to my life.
"It's never occurred to me to give up. Partly, it's because of who I am, but mostly it's because, throughout, my wife has been a pillar of strength. And my family and friends have given me incredible amounts of support. So the fact that I never lost hope is not really my achievement, it's simply a fact. That's just the way it is. The good thing is, I'm still here."

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